David Wilson, a son of Alabama sharecroppers who earned a doctorate from Harvard and supervises Wisconsin's 13 two-year colleges, will become the 12th president of Morgan State University, school officials announced Thursday.
Wilson will replace Earl S. Richardson, who plans to step down at the end of June after 25 years.
"The more I dug into Morgan, the more I realized this was a great opportunity to continue building a pre-eminent urban research institution," Wilson said in an interview.
He said he was impressed with Morgan's faculty and its production of African-American engineers and scientists. Wilson plans to expand the university's doctoral programs, focusing on the "intractable challenges facing urban America."
"There is something very special about Dr. Wilson that when you meet him, you know he's the real thing," said Kweisi Mfume, a Morgan alumnus and member of the university's board of regents. "He's a visionary with impeccable credentials, and all of his life experiences have prepared him for this moment."
Wilson, 54, grew up in a shanty in rural Alabama, the youngest of 10 children and the first in his family to attend college. With his family needing him to pick cotton and okra two days a week, he did not go to school full time until the seventh grade. But he remembers reading the magazine articles his family plastered to the walls of their home to keep out the wind and cold.
"In a lot of ways, I traveled the world without ever leaving the walls of that shanty," he said. "After that, I did whatever I could to be touched by the magic of education."
He attended Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama, and said historically black institutions "are absolutely central to the competitiveness of this nation."
"We have to provide opportunities so that every American citizen can achieve his or her greatest potential. We have to make sure that no one gets left back," Wilson said.
In addition to supervising the University of Wisconsin system's two-year colleges, Wilson led its extension system, which helps to apply university research in dozens of communities around the state. He oversaw an annual budget of more than $300 million.
He said his experience dealing with a state legislature and governor will help in Maryland as he seeks public funding for Morgan, which endured a contentious legislative audit in 2008. Mfume, a former congressman, predicted that legislators "will rave about him and really enjoy him."
Before taking the Wisconsin job in 2006, Wilson served as Auburn University's first black vice president, helping to forge ties with poor, rural sections of Alabama.
"Morgan has experienced phenomenal growth under the leadership of President Richardson and we were looking for someone who could continue that momentum," said Dallas R. Evans, chairman of the university's board of regents. "We believe Dr. Wilson is the person who can take us to the next level of excellence and productivity."
After receiving a bachelor's in political science in 1977 and a master's in education - also from Tuskegee - in 1979, he went on to earn a pair of graduate degrees from Harvard: a master's in educational planning and administration in 1984 and a doctorate in administration, planning and social policy in 1987.
With 7,000 students and an annual budget of $200 million, Morgan is a public institution known for its engineering school, choir and band, among other programs.
Wilson, a single father of one, said he will begin his transition to the new job in January, trying to make connections with state leaders during the upcoming legislative session. He will take the job officially on July 1. The position pays $375,000 a year. Richardson salary is $389,000.
Asked if Wilson will steer his alma mater in a new direction, Mfume said: "I believe Earl Richardson came along at a tough time for the university and laid quite a foundation. "But now, I believe Dr. Wilson is the educational architect to come in behind him and put up a superstructure."